WESTFIELD, NJ – On a recent July morning, Judy Lee, head coach of the Westfield Memorial Pool Marlins swim team, sat poolside with a group of young swimmers before practice to discuss the team’s first meet of the season planned for that night at Manor Park.
“What do you think you should bring to a swim meet?” Lee asked the children.
Children volunteered answers such as goggles, caps, water and snacks, and Lee also suggested an extra towel and a book or small game to keep them busy between races. After the talk, the kids hopped in the water and Lee began coaching as she has each summer for 41 years at Memorial Pool.
In Westfield, where swimming is a hugely popular sport, Lee is a legend for helping swimmers of all levels find enjoyment and improvement from participation in summer swim team. Kids and parents say she has nurtured generations of swimmers while making practices and competition fun.
“It was this team that made me like the sport,” said Matt Daniel, 19, one of Lee’s assistant coaches, who started competing for Memorial when he was seven, swam for Westfield High School's award-winning team and now swims for the University of Delaware. “Judy gave me a love of the sport.”
Lee, 64, says that she started coaching “unofficially” in 1973. That summer, she was hired to check ID cards at Memorial's front booth and eventually started helping the head swim coach when it didn’t interfere with her regular job. When that coach took another position the following summer, Lee stepped in.
“Westfield swimming is a pretty big deal, so I kind of liked feeding our kids into that program,” she said. “The nice thing is coming back year after year. The kids come back year after year.”
About 250 swimmers are part of the Marlins swim team this summer, and Lee estimates that roughly 90 percent of the children return each year to participate.
Growing up in Greenfield Village in South Jersey, Lee started swimming in the summers on local teams that were part of a highly competitive tri-county league. Summer teams trained together in the winter.
“We would use our winter to stay in shape for the summer, whereas here it’s flipped. We use the summer to stay in shape for the winter,” she noted.
Lee excelled at butterfly, but later played field hockey, basketball and tennis at West Deptford High School because the school did not have a swim team. She coached local swim teams during summer breaks from college.
In the Marlins’ off season, Lee is a high school math teacher and swimming and field hockey coach at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge. She lives in Basking Ridge with her husband, Harry.
Earlier this year, Lee was honored as Somerset County’s girls’ swimming coach of the year by The Star Ledger. Lee is also a member of the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Parent representative Beth Riordan has three children who swim for the Marlins during the summer and for the Westfield Area Y in the fall and winter months. She says she breathes a sigh of relief each year when she sees Lee listed as the Marlins coach.
“Judy’s coaching style is special because of her versatility,” Riordan said. “She is able to communicate effectively with kindergarteners through high school graduates. She truly watches each of her swimmers in practice and meets and gives thoughtful feedback on their strokes, turns, races.”
Riordan’s son Michael, 11, said he particularly enjoys how Lee makes practices fun with the biggest splash contests, relay races and themes such as crazy hat week or red, white and blue week.
Many Marlins gather around “Coach Judy” to check in with her following their races and discuss how they went.
“She appreciates all levels of swimming,” said Daniel.
Away from the pool, Lee and her husband enjoy golfing. She is part of a master’s swim club at Berkeley Aquatic Club. She and her husband are contemplating their plans when they retire down the road.
“We’re anticipating doing the travel thing, but I don’t anticipate giving up my summer [job],” she said.